Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing Short

Elizabeth Zelvin

“I wish I could write short. I can't. It takes a lot of creativity, dedication and diligence to write short, concise and interesting. It is truly an art form.”

When I saw this comment from writer Melissa Emerald on one of my mystery e-lists, my first thought was, “It’s easy. All you have to do is limit your story to one murder, three suspects, and one twist.” But of course there’s a lot more to it.

The reason I don’t accept any fiction writer’s claim that he or she “can’t write short” is that I neither read nor wrote short stories until four years ago, although I’m a lifelong writer and an avid reader of fiction. I was surprised to find how spacious 3,000 words could be, happy when the story was accepted in my local Sisters in Crime chapter’s anthology, and thrilled when it was nominated for an Agatha. So I was very, very motivated to try another short. Four years later, I have fallen in love with the form. The ratio of inspiration to agony is better, it’s more marketable (at the reward level if not at the making-a-living level), and a short story doesn’t take a year of your life and break your heart. As you probably can tell, I’m not one of those novelists whose blithe fingers twinkle as they dance their way through the first draft.

So can short story writing be taught to a writer who thinks she “can’t write short”? Let’s look at some of the basic elements of fiction or storytelling: structure, characterization, and pace.

Structure
I was kidding when I said, “It’s easy.” But the rule of one murder, three suspects, and one twist was actually how I wrote at least a couple of my short stories about my series protagonist, Bruce Kohler, though I hadn’t formulated it at the time. The basic structure of a murder mystery is simple: crime, investigation, and climax and resolution. In practice, most novelists struggle to avoid the proverbial “sagging middle.” To spin out their story to the minimum required length of 70,000 words, they use a number of devices: subplots, additional crimes, multiple points of view, extended dialogue, extended narrative such as description of the setting, backstory, and action scenes involving personal danger to the protagonist. To write short, leave those out. And don’t leave out that crucial twist or punch line at the end. It’s like the confrontation followed by slow unraveling in a novel, only a lot shorter.

Characterization
Here, I’d suggest the opposite of what you do with structure. Don’t skimp on characterization. Show, don’t tell. Leave out any traits extraneous to the particular story, or if they’re central to the character, sketch them in quickly. For example, Bruce is a recovering alcoholic. In one story, that’s crucial to his solving of the murder. In another, it’s not, but we pick it up from a few sardonic references in Bruce’s distinctive voice. Voice, by the way, is as essential to the short story as it is to the novel, maybe more. It needs to grab the reader from the very first line.

Pace
The key to pace in a short story is something else that the novelist already knows: Kill your darlings. Leave out the backstory. Avoid lush descriptive passages and blow by blow descriptions of the protagonist’s daily life, including 99 percent of the details you’ve painstakingly researched. If you can’t refrain in the initial draft, cut them when you revise. All this is true for writing novels too, except in a novel there’s more elaboration: complexities of plot, more characters and relationships, sometimes diversity of point of view.

So what’s left? The bare bones of a good short story: characters that spring off the page, a briefly but vividly sketched setting, lively dialogue, the story itself, which can be simple or concise but twisty, and that satisfying whammy at the end. If you’ve done it well, those bones are meaty after all.

17 comments:

E. B. Davis said...

I agree Liz. I like shorts because they don't break your heart. Your short in Ellery Queen this month was quite a good example. Thanks for the good read.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Liz,

I enjoy writing short stories, especially in the mystery genre. However, I like to experiment with various forms in short fiction. I also enjoy writing novels, but they demand much more complexity.

Barbara Monajem said...

I like writing short stories, too (although I'm talking 15K words). After struggling my way through quite a few full-length romances (with substantial elements of mystery), I tried writing a short historical romance for Harlequin. It was an enlightening and rewarding experience. I tend to dream up complicated plots and then have to extricate myself--argh--but writing a shorter piece *forced* me to keep it simple. Not only that, there's no time for a sagging middle. In fact, shorts make a great change of pace when I'm bogged down in another story. And closure comes quickly! It's such a relief to finish a story in a matter of weeks.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, E.B. Jacqueline, experimenting is another delightful aspect of shorts. I can't think why I forgot to mention it. :) The story in EQMM this month is my first historical mystery, and I also have one in Dark Valentine that's my first paranormal serial killer noir. Barbara, my sentiments exactly. I'm at work on my first 10-15,000 story now, and my blog on it will appear here in August.

Sheila Connolly said...

Love the "ratio of inspiration to agony" line.

Reading this, I realized (a) I've said what Melissa said more than once; and (b) I must be a word hoarder. I can't seem to say anything with a minimum of words. I can't throw out that lovely prose, that telling anecdote, that rich verbal and psychological embroidery.

Maybe I need an intervention, from someone with a sharp red pencil.

David Cranmer said...

Top post here on short story writing.

"The Green Cross" in EQMM was terrific and I'm very honored to have your sharp prose in BEAT to a PULP soon.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I would say mood and character trump plot in short stories. A good plot takes a long time to develop. And I admire stories that don't have a twist at the end although I often provide one because it's expected. I think the discovery of a "truth" is a more valuable ending. I like walking away from it feeling my time was well spent rather than the feeling of being fooled.

jrlindermuth said...

A good summary of the technique, Liz. But, oh, if it were only ever easy.

Teresa Judd said...

I rarely blog but the topic "Writing Short" caught my attention because I seem to be permanently in that mode. So many interesting topics pop up and though none of them would make a novel, they are usually well worth exploring in a short piece. And I especially like thinking up the little twists at the end. It's the fun part.

Sunny Frazier said...

Oh Liz, when I saw the title of your blog I immediately thought you were were going to talk about flash fiction. To me, 5,000 words is lots of wiggle room. Now 500 words--that's SHORT.

And yes, everything you said applies, only less so. It's like squeezing into a girdle two sizes too small. But oh, it feels so good if you can do it!

Karyne Corum said...

I admit it. I used to suffer from a severe case of SSP, short story phobia. I can't, it's too hard, there's no way I can wrap up a whole mystery in a such a short space, etc. etc. etc.

Then, a great friend and writer, threw me into the water, arm's flailing,and lo and behold, I did it. Not once, or twice but five times. Each time it got easier, each time I challenged myself more. Now that I'm working on my first full length, chapters come alot more easily because I've already learned the hard part. How to woo and win a reader in the shortest space possible.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for all your wonderful comments, everyone. David, I have felt freer to write the shorts since realizing what great markets the best e-zines, like Beat To A Pulp, are. Sunny, thanks for mentioning flash fiction. My first, 499 words, will appear in Mysterical-E in the fall. But I was a poet for thirty years, if you really want to talk about SHORT! And ROFL about the girdle. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I envy you, Liz -- you and everyone else who can write good short stories. I seem incapable of stripping a story down to essentials. I always want to write more and more about any situation.

Ron Scheer said...

Writing short, I found my fiction became reduced almost totally to dialogue. So I switched to play writing.

Lina said...

I love short stories - they are such an ego booster! You spend a coupla weekends writing them, you get a coupla rejections from the big guys like EQMM and AHMM, then you send them out to a coupla e-zines - and they're up for everyone to read before you know it! You count your congrats and you have enough inspiration to write more...

kathy d. said...

I love this quote by Mark Twain: "I didn't have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one."

I pondered this for awhile until I figured out how to write tighter and shorter pieces.

Marisa Birns said...

I have been writing flash fiction for a year now and your cogent post is applicable to that form too! Short definitely is not easy... ;)

Now, as I move on to writing longer short stories, I will keep in mind your wonderful advice. Thank you!